If you decide to take up the challenge of a street mission where you live, you must first seek the missionary heart and attitude. Heart and attitude are two sides of a coin. The heart is what is inside you, and the attitude is what others perceive as you approach them. When you’ve found your missionary heart, your missionary attitude will flow naturally from within.
Where is your missionary heart?
It’s the heart of Jesus in us.
Each of us will find our heart in a different way, but here are ten elements that seem to be part of every successful missionary’s story.
1. Willingness to Answer the Call
All of us receive a spiritual call at some point. Most of us respond as I did: “Absolutely not. No way, no how. Not going.”
But if there’s one truth I’ve learned as a missionary of
Christ, it’s this: none of us are qualified for this job. Only Christ is. None
of us can convert a lost soul. Only Christ can.
If that’s true, then it’s prideful to think we can’t do this but can do something else in its place. We can do anything . . . but only through Him.
The reality is that Christ is pinging us all the time. He was pinging me in that hospital bed in St. Barnabas. He was pinging me a little louder when Evelyn called me up to ask me to join the mission in New York. I don’t want to think about how many pings I haven’t even recognized.
So, the first step to developing your missionary heart is to stop analyzing each ring of the phone. Don’t ask whether you should pick it up. Don’t ask whether you’re qualified for the job. Get off your high horse and begin to understand that “the Lord does not call the equipped; he equips the called.”
Pick up the phone.
Answer the call.
2. Prayer and Silence
Have you spent any time reading lives of the saints? If you have, you must have noticed a common denominator in their spiritual lives: considerable time spent in silent prayer. Jesus Himself is the ultimate guide for us here: He often began His great miracles with long periods of silent prayer and ended them the same way. Through the din of the hustle-and-bustle world around us, only in silent prayer can you truly hear His whispering voice.
My first silent retreat, just before that first SoHo mission, was a revelation for me. I’m used to talking and discussing all day, so at first I found the retreat uncomfortable. Gradually, in the silence of that little chapel, I heard God speaking to me — giving me my marching orders, if you will.
In retrospect, that special sense of connectedness served me well in the mission that followed.
So, if you’re planning to go on a street mission, do a lot of praying in advance. Get yourself as connected as possible to your Creator. Maybe even go on a silent retreat. You’re trying to meld with His heart, and you need to give Him a chance to reach you.
3. Reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation
This may seem obvious to you, but it wasn’t to me: only by receiving the graces of the sacrament of reconciliation can you be effective in offering it to others. You can’t give what you don’t have.
Over the years, I’ve watched many missionaries in the streets.
Some seem incredibly effective; others less so. When I see missionaries who aren’t doing so well, I often ask them quietly at some point, “Have you had a chance to get to confession yet yourself?” Invariably, the answer comes back: “No, not yet.”
Right then and there, I gently push them into the church. More often than not, they return energized, joyful, and a lot more effective.
They must have felt an especially profound healing from Jesus. I suspect that their depth of gratitude and love energized their love for others.
Now, your spiritual life may be in good shape. You may need only a light wash before heading into the streets. Even so, go and receive the sacrament. Its message of mercy and love is a key element of the heart of every missionary.
And if you really want a rocket booster, try making a general confession instead. You may find yourself in an entirely different orbit.
4. Shared Experience with Jesus
All good relationships deepen and grow with two key elements: communication and shared experiences. In our relationship with God, prayer is the communication part. Mission is the shared experience.
If you want to develop the heart of a missionary, be attentive to Jesus’ presence. Jesus is there with you. Feel Him, smell Him, become Him. It’s His heart you’re after. And here’s the bonus: the more often you answer the call and the more you come forth from your protective walls and enter the streets with Jesus at your side, the more shared experiences with Him you will have and the closer to Him you will become.
In helping others to find a relationship with Christ, your relationship with Him will grow and deepen. His heart will become yours.
5. Willingness to Embrace Suffering
We don’t like to suffer. We’re programmed to avoid pain at nearly all costs. But we all suffer at some point. It’s the human condition. So, while you certainly should do what you can to alleviate your suffering, you should also embrace it.
I’ve always heard Christ speak to me most clearly when I was suffering — such as when I was in the hospital dealing with heart failure. And, of course, there can be plenty of suffering in the mission itself — all that putting cigars out on our foreheads that I worried so much about.
I’m not sure why it is that we hear Jesus most clearly when we’re suffering, but it could be that in suffering we get a little closer to the heart of Jesus on the Cross. We feel His pain — in a small, small way, to be sure — but we feel it nonetheless.
So, if you want to develop your missionary heart, the next time you’re suffering, embrace it.
Pray to Him.
And thank Him for letting you share His pain.
The secret to the heart of a missionary is love. You must love everyone you see. No exceptions.
How do you do that? How can you possibly love everyone, especially the rude and disrespectful ones who stream past you?
The only answer I have is the heart of Jesus that is within each of us.
His heart in yourself. Then let it pour out on the streets, instinctively, from
within you. “Love, don’t think.”
There is literally no argument more eloquent, more persuasive, for bringing in a lost sheep. The people we meet on the streets often have a lot of material possessions, but far too many of them feel unloved. As your encounter deepens, as you probe someone with heartfelt questions, most people respond from their hearts. They begin to ask themselves, “What is the guy doing here? He’s enduring weather, hunger, scorn — for me?”
Inevitably, the love of the missionary begets love from the passerby. And a casual meeting on a street corner is transformed into something much more profound.
We Catholics suffer from a serious branding problem. Ask someone to describe what a Catholic is like, and the first response you get might be “guilt-ridden.” “They’re always dragging themselves through the mud,” people might say.
Committed Catholics know that, far from making them miserable, their Faith makes them joyful. Connected with Jesus and following His Way, they’re becoming the perfect, happy souls that God, their Creator, made them to be. They’re finding their true selves, and there is great joy in that.
This is the Joy of the Gospel, and it’s the message the pope wants us to project in our evangelization efforts. So many times on the streets of New York, I’ve heard people say, “Wow! This is amazing! We didn’t know Catholics did this sort of thing! You guys look so happy!” There’s nothing more compelling to the beaten-down souls wandering the streets of New York than joy.
Sometimes I tell our young people when they wonder what to say out there, “Don’t say anything. Just be your joyful selves. People will come up to you and start a conversation.”
Incredibly, this works. People see a joyful missionary and a voice inside them says, “Go to her. Get me some of that!”
Jesus certainly knows that following His Way can be scary. That’s why we find the phrase “be not afraid” more than twenty times in the New Testament. Yet fear grips us, particularly when we’re invited to go out into the streets and seek Catholics.
Remember that the people we’re evangelizing are also fearful: fearful of their brokenness, which they’ve pushed deep down inside them; fearful of facing a priest in confession; fearful of facing God on the Day of Judgment.
Here’s the rub: fearful people can’t attract fearful people. Others can sense our fear, even smell it. Joyful, fearless confidence, on the other hand, attracts fearful people, like stray sheep to a shepherd. So the first thing you need as a missionary is confidence.
How do you project confidence?
Trust in the Holy Spirit. He will guide you. Know that He is with you. You are not alone.
Above all, don’t give up early. Don’t miss that one soul who’s waiting for you in particular. Try to avoid the “white-knuckle” approach to perseverance, which relies on you and not on the Holy Spirit. Use the Holy Spirit method: put yourself in His hands and sit back and wait for Him to make things happen. He will.
Out on the streets, you’ll see all kinds of people — angry souls, lost souls, blissfully ignorant souls. Some will be dressed in torn clothes or carrying shopping bags with all their possessions in them. Others will be dressed to the nines on their way to dinner. Still others will have barely any clothes on.
As missionaries of Christ, we sometimes take shortcuts, out of laziness or pride or even an attempt at efficiency: “That one can’t possibly be a Catholic.” “No point in wasting my time on those two.” “My goodness, it would be embarrassing just to be seen speaking with that one!”
These thoughts are temptations of the devil, making us doubt one of the central tenets of our Faith: we are all children of a loving God, even those of us who don’t know we are or don’t want to be. And if we are all children of the same God, then we are also brothers and sisters in Christ.
And we all possess a special dignity, which is the image of God within us.
So, a key disposition of the missionary must be to engage every single person we meet as a child of God, with all the dignity that that phrase implies. This missionary disposition alone can turn what could have been a very weak and uneventful encounter into a successful one.
After many years in the streets, I’m convinced that one of the greatest obstacles to missionary success is pride — both in the missionary who doesn’t want to step into the streets and in the potential penitents who can’t overcome their pride to find a path back to God. The antidote to pride is humility.
At least in New York, and probably in any other city in America, humility in a missionary is very disarming. In a religious context, people have come to expect the opposite: the doomsday preachers on their soap boxes in the subways, their unhappy memories of Sr. Wanda from Catholic grammar school, and sometimes even their unsettling interaction with a particularly tough priest in confession long, long ago. When instead they encounter humility in a missionary, their defenses go down quickly, and they can engage. So, as you head out into the streets, becoming humble is a key element in your missionary success.
Where can you get humility? The same place you can get all the other attitudes I’ve mentioned: the heart of Jesus.
Go to Him.
He won’t let you down.
This article is adapted from a chapter in The Missionary of Wall Street: From Managing Money to Saving Souls on the Streets of New York. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.